According to her website, Shelley Shepard Gray enjoys writing stories about “people who have a strong faith, a quieter way of life, but aren’t perfect.” Thus sets the scene for the first novel in her Families of Honor series, which includes a cast of characters that most wouldn’t expect to find in Amish novel. Lucy has escaped an abusive marriage following her husband’s sudden death, Calvin is picking up the pieces of his life after his long-term girlfriend left him for his best friend, Mattie is struggling with breast cancer and John is returning to his Amish roots after a long period in the English world. Their lives collide when Lucy travels to Jacob’s Crossing, Ohio, to care for her cousin Mattie as she undertakes chemotherapy, and ends up sitting beside Calvin and his English Uncle John on the train. Still having nightmares about her husband’s temper a year after his death, Lucy finds it difficult to be comfortable around men. And just as she starts to open up to Calvin, she witnesses him having a heated argument that causes all of her fears about men to surface again. When she arrives in Jacob’s Crossing she throws all of her energies into caring for Mattie, but can’t help but keep running into Calvin. Lucy finds herself challenged to put her past behind her and open up to the new possibilities of the future – and a life with Calvin.
The Caregiver was my second experience with Shelley Shepard Gray, and while I wouldn’t say that she’s becoming one of my favourite authors in the Amish genre, she’s definitely one you can depend upon for a great story. Shelley doesn’t shy away from writing about tough topics, and I commend her for showing the Amish in a truthful light and not falling into the trap of romanticising their lifestyle. In places I found it difficult to read about Lucy’s abusive marriage and to learn that her family hadn’t tried to rescue her, but I’m sure this is a situation that far too many women find themselves in, both Amish and “English”. Lucy was an incredibly endearing character, one that you just want to hug and keep from harm. That said, Lucy is not as vulnerable as you might think, and while she finds it difficult to trust men she is a pillar of strength when it comes to looking after her cousin, Mattie. I enjoyed reading about Lucy and Calvin’s blossoming friendship, which will be appreciated by many fans of sweet romances. Calvin wasn’t a terribly unique character as far as heroes go, but he had his own troubles in facing his ex-girlfriend and best friend’s new relationship, and it was interesting to see that not all Amish courtships end in marriage. Calvin was a solid, dependable character and the perfect match for Lucy, and I was rooting for them to overcome their troubles and admit that they cared for each other.
As I started to read this novel I was surprised to discover that the focus wasn’t purely on Lucy and Calvin, but also on Mattie and John. A fair amount of the story was fixed on Mattie’s recovery from surgery, her struggles with her faith and her fear that she’d never find a husband because her operation had warped her body. Although I didn’t expect to read Mattie’s perspective on the events that unfolded, I ended up appreciating her struggles and what they added to the story. Shelley painted Mattie’s experience with breast cancer very realistically and I could imagine that any woman would feel exactly as she did. On the other hand, I found myself becoming disinterested with John’s story, which was almost entirely unrelated to the main plot and focused mainly on his attraction to two very different women. This subplot was unresolved by the end of the novel, and while I imagine that it will be continued in the second book in the series I have to admit that I really don’t care what happens to him. His character wasn’t fleshed out enough for me to really become interested in him, but maybe he’ll become a more focal character in the second book.
Having experienced Shelley Shepard Gray’s skill in creating realistic characters with struggles that readers can all relate to, I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more of her work. If you’re wary of the Amish genre for fear that authors have a tendency to romanticise the lifestyle, The Caregiver may be more your style of novel. That said, it still contains a large splash of romance and a happy ending that will provide encouragement to all fans of the Amish genre. 8/10